Ulaan Baator to Moscow by Train


Day One

The compartment we were allocated in first class is certainly a step down from what we had on the Chinese train. We had been told that first class included a shower shared with one other compartment, electrical sockets, air conditioning and one meal a day. None of these pertain. Well, you can open the window (if you have the strength and as long as you don’t mind not being able to shut it again), that’s the extent of the aircon. Don’t get me wrong, we are perfectly comfortable – Lauren said ‘I don’t like showers anyway’ and I did come equipped with wet wipes. The socket situation is a problem – there is one in the corridor that works occasionally but after all the lights went out unexpectedly and the attendant fell over my cable for the laptop in the dark, I have decided we can’t use it unless we leave our devices there. Plus, it only works about 20 percent of the time… We did bring actual books for just this possibility but Lauren has finished hers already on the second day. She is a voracious reader these days.



The hot water boiler, providing boiling water for pot noodles and tea…. our main source of  sustenance for the next 5 days… 

The scenery up to the border through Mongolia was beautiful – lots of rolling hills and rivers. Obviously its not easy getting pictures from the train, but these give you an idea…





The border crossing into Russia happened late at night – we arrived around midnight – but was much quicker than the China-Mongolia crossing as the wheels didn’t need changing. Out of Mongolia was fast and polite. Into Russia was brusque, serious and intense. First they came round and scrutinized passports and visas. A woman inputted every detail of our passport and visa into a hand held device, then scanned/examined (?) every page of our passports, with some kind of handheld electronic camera/magnifying glass… Then she stamped my passport and returned it, with the immigration card, but took Lauren’s and disappeared, clearly not happy with something….  Not  sure what happened but 10 minutes later she returned, stamped it rather aggressively, and then tore off the part of the immigration card we are supposed to retain – tearing right across her stamp on ‘my’ section and presenting me with the two bits that I will probably get into trouble for.

After that, ‘border security’ came through and there was no being nice because I had a child – we were made to leave the compartment while a young military guy inspected everywhere – not a problem, but would it have hurt to say please? He barked orders at us (in English) and seemed impatient with the whole process. I thought we were done after this and put the door to so that Lauren could try to sleep (it was well after 1am by now). A minute later a tall guy in uniform berated us loudly in Russian, and wrenched the door open, so we left it like that. Then a woman with a face straight out of Kafka marched sternly past, carrying a video camera and filming each of us. Still not done, we were then visited by customs who made us open our bags and poked around amongst the dirty underwear and pot noodles until satisfied we weren’t bringing in anything illegal.

Still we were not allowed to close our door, but Lauren dozed off eventually as I stayed up until around 3am when we finally left.

Day Two

After a disturbed sleep, we woke around 9am, to be told it was actually 4am as we were now in Russia and Russian trains work on Moscow time no matter how many time zones they are away from Moscow. We are 5 time zones away. Its very confusing. We have decided that I will have my watch on Moscow time and Lauren will changes hers as we cross each time zone, until we ‘meet’ in the Moscow time zone…

We were travelling along the shore of beautiful Lake Baikal, supposedly the ‘oldest’ lake in the world and certainly the deepest. At times there was nothing to see but vast expanses of water, at others people were camping on beaches and even swimming.


After a breakfast of slightly stale cinnamon rolls and instant coffee/mint tea, we spent the morning reading and attempting to charge various devices. Around 09h45 (Moscow time) or 14h45 (Lauren’s stomach time) we arrived in Irkutsk where a stop of 45 minutes gave us the opportunity to dash off the train, find an ATM and buy lunch.


Its amazing what you can classify as acceptable food when the alternative is pot noodles. Lauren had deep fried chicken wings and chips, I had a beef wrap (which in the picture was actual beef chunks in a wrap with salad, but in reality was a burger in a wrap with a slice of tomato and a gherkin…). Both were grim, but warm, filling and, most importantly, not pot noodles. My approach was to eat as fast as possible and not think. Lauren’s was to take forever over every mouthful, screwing her face up as she chewed and sighing loudly.

We are not fast food kind of people.


The afternoon passed in looking out the window, more reading, updating this blog while my laptop had battery and playing yet more sessions of Machi Koro.


Day Three

Day three saw us travelling due west across the endless expanses of Siberia. We stopped occasionally for 20-30 minutes at stations, where we would stretch our legs and buy snacks. Lauren was nervous at first about leaving the platform, but soon got used to dashing quickly around the station to get some exercise, even running up and down the steps to the overhead bridges to work up a bit of a sweat.


We drank a lot of tea, read a lot, played a lot of machi koro, and allowed ourselves snacks every couple of hours. The scenery didn’t change much – forests of silver birch, pine and fir, interspersed with beautiful meadows of long grass filled with purple, yellow and white flowers. Occasionally we passed little villages of wooden houses and the odd golden dome of a church. Guys wandered about shirtless, tinkered with old cars, drank beer. Women carried bags and herded children along country lanes, kids played football or mooched about in the fields.  We crossed a lot of rivers, occasionally seeing a fisherman or people camping on the shore. There were also spooky remnants of industry, ancient abandoned factories in the middle of nowhere, and modern timber yards. When we came to road crossings the attendants were always middle aged women in high vis orange jackets, hanging out the window of their little blue huts.







We were asked by the two women who are in charge of the carriage to swap compartments. We were a little annoyed about this as we had really unpacked and made ourselves at home. I figured there must have been some mix up with tickets and agreed, but it turned out they just wanted to hang out in ‘our’ compartment which was closest to the galley.

One super annoying thing on the train, which we noticed more in our ‘new’ compartment, was the piped music that can never be properly turned off. Its played from a central point on the train and while each compartment has a volume button, ours didn’t quite work so that when the train was quiet you could just about hear it, which was more annoying than hearing it properly. It was torture for a while, but then we got used to it.

The highlight of the day was discovering the restaurant car. Given we had managed to get Rubles in Irkutsk, I thought we might brave it, despite  my memory of Russian train food being of lumps of unidentified grey meat and pickled cucumber.

We walked through around 9 carriages to reach the restaurant car, passing through crowded 2nd class carriages and eerily quiet empty ones. Between the carriages were dark spaces where two metal plates overlapped, bouncing and jumping so that you could see the tracks speeding by below. Wires hung down from above so that my head brushed against them in the dark. Many of the lights were out or broken as we made our way ever further towards the back of the train.

Then, suddenly we were at the restaurant car, and as I opened the door and entered we were greeted by a hot, dimly lit carriage decorated with disco lights and coloured balloons. Russian pop music was blaring out from a karaoke machine clearly made for a much bigger space, and the only other customers were two very drunk guys and a table of Mongolian guys in their 20s. There were artificial flowers on every table, heavily ornate gold brocade curtains, polished wooden benches and tables, and behind the bar a well-padded lady of indeterminate age with a soviet-era haircut who greeted us and ushered us to a table as if she hadn’t seen a paying customer in years. It felt a little Hotel California.

We ordered borsch followed by stroganoff and both were actually delicious. One of the drunk guys wobbled over to our table to shake hands, then left us alone, much to my relief. He and his mate belted out a few karaoke numbers, including a Russian language version of Despacito, which was most odd.

Day Four

Day four passed very much like day three – reading, machi koro, tea, snacks and dinner in the (thankfully karaoke-less) dining car. More opportunities to run around stations and grab an ice cream, and even 5 minutes of free wifi at one of the stations, so we could exchange a few messages with family and friends.

We officially crossed into Europe at some point, although we missed the monument that is supposedly there. I remember it from 20 years ago, but we couldn’t see it. We were now officially in ‘known territory’ once we passed Yekaterinburg, which was as far as I ever got in my Siberian adventures back in my 20s.


We also spent some time with our Mongolian neighbours – they were moving to Egypt and decided to take the train to Moscow and fly from there. He was a diplomat and had worked all over the middle east. We had some interesting discussions about Mongolia, the middle east, Africa and foreign policy of a country sandwiched between Russia and China, demanding neighbours indeed.  Lauren and his 4 year old daughter played together for ages despite no common language.



Day Five

Suddenly it was out last day on board and we would soon disembark and see our good friends from Mozambique, who now live in Tanzania but were spending the summer in Moscow. Lauren was beside herself with excitement to see the two girls. I was also looking forward to seeing friends, but just as excited at the idea of a shower! It was wonderful to be once more amongst friends, and Moscow was a whole lot more inviting than the last time I had been here, nearly 20 years ago.







As we pulled into the station in UB, as the locals call it, we scanned the crowds on the platform for the face of our friend Naomi, who I had worked for previously in Mozambique. Naomi, her husband Eric and their two teenage sons would be our gracious hosts and guides for the too-short time we were in Mongolia. [I can’t believe it but we didn’t even get a picture of us all….too busy nattering!].

I finally picked Naomi out of the crowd and rushed (as much as a 20 kg bag allows) over for a hug – it was so good to see someone we knew!!

A quick turnaround at their place and we were joined by two small girls, half Mongolian half French, who would be accompanying Eric, myself and Lauren to a camp out in the hills. Unfortunately, Naomi had to work. The three girls kept up a constant chatter for the next 24 hours. It was nice for Lauren to have someone to talk to other than me, and a break for me to not be the only recipient of her chatter.


We drove about an hour and a half out of UB, to get to the camp, which consisted of a few Gers on the banks of a river and surrounded by horses, cows and goats. The ger was surprisingly roomy inside and the girls took delight in teaching us some of the rules of ger living – always enter with the right foot, stepping over (not on) the threshold, never walk between the two minor poles supporting the roof, always walk a particular way round the major main pole…. they took even greater delight in pointing out when we did something wrong.


Dinner was somewhat rustic, mutton with potatoes and carrots and pasta, but tasty and edible. Funnily enough, Eric (who is French) was the only one of us to eat all his mutton fat and gristle. The (half) Mongolian girls and the tourists left a little pile of gristle by the side.

After dinner the girls played with the kids of the owner, a mish mash of languages, ages and genders that seemed to gel into some kind of cohesive game.

The next day, the others went horse riding.



I was so jealous, my teenage self would have given just about anything for the opportunity to go horse riding across the hills of Mongolia – across rivers and up hills, no path required. I just couldn’t risk hurting my back (I had surgery on it a decade ago, its never been right since) so instead waved them off and settled down by the river with my kindle for a couple of hours of peace.


Lauren returned full of excitement and stories of how they crossed a river saw Yaks and other animals and how the guides at one point hopped off their horses for a ten minute nap. Not strictly required on a two hour ride I would have thought, but there you go.

Looking around, you really get the impression of a country comfortable with its traditions – gers are everywhere and even when there are brick buildings, they also have gers. Apparently families often sleep in the gers in winter (and it gets seriously cold here, like minus 30) as they are warmer than the ‘modern’ houses. Young children sit on horseback as if they are part of the horse. We saw one boy, probably about Lauren’s age, astride a horse, leading 4 or 5 others by leads, while typing on his mobile.

The scenery was stunning, even this close to UB. Of course, with more time we could have gone further, more remote, and that would have been incredible. But thanks to Eric we at least got a flavour for what it would be like – the country is huge, scantily populated, and still retains a lot of nomadic culture.

After packing up and thanking the owner of the camp (the only word we learned in Mongolia was thank you, and even that was complicated) we visited the enormous monument to Ghengis Khan, who is still revered in the country. The monument is huge, brash and hideous, but certainly a sight worth seeing. We decided we didn’t feel the need to pay the entrance fee and climb up to the top of his horses ‘mane’ like the droves of other tourists and chose lunch instead.



After lunch we visited a Buddhist monastery and meditation centre. To reach it we had to walk up a steep incline, surrounded on both sides by some distinctly odd and dark sayings… trying to figure out what they meant gave us a good excuse to take a breather as we wound our way up the mountainside, and then across a rickety suspension bridge.





And my personal favourite………


The views from the top were incredible, but my lungs soon protested when I tried to enter the temple – the air was thick with incense and my pneumonia-weakened lungs (that still hadn’t recovered from the climb) insisted I wait outside while Eric and the girls explored. I sat in the shade and contemplated the view.







Back in UB that night we had a bath (I don’t think I have had an actual bath in a year!) which was lovely after a night on a train then a night in a ger, followed by a yummy dinner (Indian! Yay! Although there was mutton tikka which we left to Eric).

All too soon the next day it was time to pack up (after another bath this time in the master bathroom, complete with coloured lights, bubbles and ‘massage effects’ ) and head to the station.


We just managed to squeeze in a coffee and lunch and a quick trip to a souvenir shop for our Mongolian ‘swag’ before boarding a distinctly less luxurious train than the one we arrived on.




We had barely two days in Mongolia, and while we packed plenty in thanks to Eric’s willingness to play tour guide, it was difficult to get much more than a superficial impression. Just crossing on the train we were struck by how much more colourful and individual houses were than in China. People definitely smiled more (although I wouldn’t say they were ‘smily’). The economy is clearly doing well (huge amounts of mining) and there are new buildings and cars in UB. It is also clearly a country shaped by the need to appease the two huge neighbours it is squeezed between. I would love to explore further but for now, we say goodbye to this fascinating country, thanks a million to Naomi and Eric, and head off on our next leg – all the way without stopping, five days on a train, to Moscow.

The Start of Our Trans-Mongolian Adventure!!!!


We were both so excited on our last night in Beijing that we barely slept, knowing that the next day would start the first leg of our mammoth trek overland by train from China to Russia, through inner Mongolia (a semi-autonomous, traditionally nomadic, region of China), the Gobi Desert, the endless rolling grasslands of Mongolia (the country) and the Taiga of Siberia. There is something deeply romantic about train travel, and while so far our experience with Chinese trains had been a mixed bag, we were stoked at the idea of almost a week on board.

I had also forked out for ‘first class’ which means we would have a compartment to ourselves. While back in the day I travelled second or even third class in Russia and China and revelled in the social aspect of that – sharing vodka and cabbage cakes in Russia, and Tsingtao beer and noodles in China – this time I am older, have a child, and value my privacy more than making new friends I can’t communicate with apart from in the universal language of alcohol and food.

It was an early start on day one, and we shared a taxi with a couple heading to the train station amid the torrential rain. The taxi dropped us across the (6 lane) road from the station, so we had to haul our bags up the steps and across the pedestrian bridge in pouring rain, then muddle through the usual confusion about how exactly to get into the station, then clear security before entering the chaos that is Beijing (main) railway station. I think there are five stations in Beijing – Beijing North, Beijing South, Beijing West and (maybe?) Beijing East, but our tickets just said ‘Beijing Railway station’, which is not any of those but the ‘main’ station, but if you say ‘main’ station to anyone they will look confused then say ‘ah, you mean Beijing railway station’…

OK. We were in the right place so all was good.

Lauren went off to buy water, while I triple-checked the details on our tickets, and then suddenly there was a surge of people (I didn’t hear any announcement or see any staff, but everyone else seemed to know now was the time to queue) and we were carried along into a queue that led to (yet more) security and then the platform.

We easily found our compartment, and after dumping our bags headed back out to the platform for photos and to inspect the train that would be our home for 24 hours before a few days in Mongolia. We still had almost half an hour before departure, so we walked the length of the 16 carriages, enjoying the atmosphere of panic tinged with emotion as people rushed on board, waved to family, struggled with enormous bags, tried to find their places and chased after toddlers.

Our very swish compartment consisted of bunk beds plus an armchair and a tiny bathroom with our own toilet and shower. This was incredible luxury after our previous experiences. The toilet was also spotless and there was even paper and soap!!!!


Soon enough we were underway – dead on time – and rolled through endless suburbs of Beijing before emerging into the countryside. We played Machi Koro (a game we’d be given by friends in the US) as the scenery unfolded – first mountains and then agricultural land dotted with grim looking villages of uniform housing blocks and not much else.




For dinner, we braved the dining car, which had velvet covered seats and a kitchen set up with a series of gas rings and a chef juggling woks. We had a delicious meal of pork with peppers and a kind of sweet and sour pork dish, plus of course mifan (rice) which was the first word Lauren learned in Chinese. I treated myself to a beer and we hung out there for a while, until there was pressure for seats. As we made our way back to the compartment, we caught a spectacular sunset over the emptiness of Inner Mongolia. .


That night we arrived at the border at around 10.30pm. We knew that the border crossing would be long and tedious – not only because of the formalities of immigration and customs, but because the gauge of the rails is different in China and Mongolia, meaning the wheels needed to be swapped.

Exiting China was relatively simple, if long. We could choose to spend the time in the station, or on the train, but as it was scheduled to be hours, we decided on the latter. This despite the fact that the toilets are locked for the whole time. They came round and inspected our passports and visas, carefully scrutinising our faces to see if they matched, then took them away for hours. Then customs came round, and poked desultorily around the compartment. Clearly we didn’t look like prime suspects for smuggling.

The train was then rolled into a huge shed. There was much jolting (sometimes violent enough to knock you off your feet) and back and forth which I assume was the removing of the dining car (when we tried to find it the next day it had gone) and possibly some other carriages. Then, we heard a hydraulic buzzing sound, and realised we were being lifted ever so slowly up in the air. It was pretty cool, and very smooth. We went to the end of the carriage and could see we had been separated from the next carriage, which was also being lifted up. Once all carriages were a good 2 metres in the air, held by sturdy metal hoists, the old wheels were rolled all the way under the train and out the end. Next, we watched as the new wheels were passed under us, until every carriage had a set. Then, they lowered us onto these wheels, and there was much bashing as I presume the wheels were attached. Finally, some safety guys came round and tested every wheel.


Cue much more jolting and back and forth as everything was connected back together again, and eventually we backed up all the way to the station again, where those who had spent the time at the station were permitted to re-board, and someone came round to return our now stamped passports. Yay, we were out of China.

Next, we chugged along through no mans land (it was now about 1am) and Lauren went to bed. I figured they could look at her face sleeping just as well as awake, and she was fading after the excitement of the wheel change. I would have happily nodded off myself, but needed to stay awake for the border formalities on the Mongolian side.

These were straightforward, but again lengthy. Passports were taken away, a torch shone in the now-sleeping Lauren’s face, and customs lifted up my bed to check for contraband but didn’t bother with Lauren’s so as not to disturb her. Top tip for smugglers – borrow a kid.

After a seemingly interminable wait, we were finally allowed to close our doors and sleep around 3am, and the train left the border just before 4, when I finally fell asleep.

An hour and a half later I woke again, needing the loo, and caught the wonderful sight of the sun rising above the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. Exhausted as I was, I watched for a few minutes as the sand turned a beautiful golden colour, before once more collapsing into bed, this time for a good few hours.


I woke to find Lauren eating breakfast and taking pictures of the desert.


The desert eventually gave way to the rolling grasslands one imagines when thinking of Mongolia, with herds of horses and cows roaming and the odd Ger dotting the hillsides. The few stations and indeed towns we saw had more colour and beauty to them than the grim monstrosities in China.





The train was scheduled to arrive in Ulaan Bataar around 2.30pm, and we were being met by friends with whom we would be staying. The plan was to go straight out into the countryside and spend the night out in the grasslands, in a traditional Ger. We decided to get a decent lunch before this, not knowing what dinner would be like (we hadn’t heard great things about Mongolian food).  Heading in the direction of the dining car – which had been adjacent to ours – we discovered it had gone. Eventually we found the new, Mongolian one – an ornate affair with polished carved wood seats and decorations, and sat down to wait for a menu.


I caught the waiter’s eye, but he seemed busy and it wasn’t like we were in a rush, so we waited about 20 minutes. He then came over and told us ‘closed’ ‘sorry, closed’ and urged us to leave!!! We had arrived at 12.30, it was now 12.50, and lunch was supposed to be served until 13.30….  he wasn’t for changing his mind though, so with no ability to communicate in Mongolian, we did as we were told and left!

A miserable lunch of a shared pot noodle and some walnuts and seaweed followed.